I go to a lot of business conferences and events. I get to go as both an attendee and as a speaker. The more I go to business events, the more it seems there are really only three things that make an event successful: the food, the accommodations and the speaker. I know more than a few people who work as an event planner or a meeting coordinator. They would tell you that a lot more goes into a successful meeting. I know they are right, because the number of details that must be considered and the number of moving parts that need to all be moving in the right direction at the right time is mind boggling.
However when the conference attendees have been back at home and back at work for a week or two, the only things that stand out for them are the food, the accommodations and the speaker.
There are a lot of jokes and a lot of grumbling about conference chicken and yet another Caesar Salad. In my experience it is better to not have any food than to have bad food at an event. I have been to several events that took this tact and I thought they were smart. It is better to have no recollection of the food at a conference than to have a recollection of bad food. I prefer to have a “lunch on your own” than to be served something I don’t care for. Enough about food already! I am getting myself hungry.
Getting the accommodations right seems to be pretty easy to accomplish. I say this because I have been to a lot of meetings and very, very few were in places that were not suited for the meeting. Very few have been uncomfortable. I’d say the hospitality business and the meeting planning professionals have done a great job getting us to the point where the facility and the accommodations fall into the column of “low stress” items on the planning list.
That leaves us with the speaker. I have seen and heard a lot of good speakers and a lot of speakers I would not put in that category. Some of the good ones have been people who do not speak on a regular basis, but either had engaging information or had a way of relating to the audience that kept our attention. Some of the less than good ones were people who are well known in their fields and had lots of zeros on the checks they received for their talks.
Here are a few of the well known speakers in no particular order that I thought were particularly engaging, informative and entertaining: John Cleese, Paco Underhill, Colin Powell, James Carville, Vince Lombardi, Jr., Roxanne Emmerich.
I have also seen plenty of speakers who read their power point slide bullet points or read a prepared statement or simply gave out information. You can imagine I am not the only person who finds an experience like this frustrating.
Everyone needs to be a public speaker at some time. Whether you are talking to your kids’ teachers, discussing a project with a contractor you want to hire for work around the house, debating policy at work or trying to get satisfaction from the customer service department at any company you do business with, you are a speaker. You need to engage the people you are speaking with so they pay attention to you and process what you are saying. You need to develop some relationship with your audience, so they care about you and what you have to say. You need to pass on good information that will help your audience do better in life. And you need to be entertaining. I do not mean you have to do card tricks or dance while you spin a porcelain plate on your nose. But you do have to create some drama and touch some nerves, You have to make them laugh a little, make them cry a little, scare them a little and give them some hope.
You become engaging when you take command of the venue with your physical presence and show that you have an understanding of the needs and feelings of your audience in the first minute or two. This only works when you are comfortable with the butterflies you get before getting in front of a group and when you learn to have fun with the interaction between you and the audience.
You are seen as informative when you bring subject matter your audience members can care about and frame it in a way that is relevant to their situations. Although the great speaker knows it is not the information, but the lesson that is important. How does the speaker teach the lesson? If the lesson is taught with illustrations, stories, analogies, active demonstrations and participation from the gallery, the audience is entertained and is thinking. When they think, they are processing the lesson so they can make some use of it later.
A good example comes from John Cleese. I loved him when he was in the Monty Python company. He can still get a crowd’s attention with his facial gestures and his posturing. This gives him an instant edge. When I saw him speak, (You notice that people typically say they saw a speaker…not that they heard a speaker) he was talking about how people who are so busy working on projects and trying to move fast that they often come up with plans and actions that are not thoroughly considered. He calls this Hare Brain Thinking. This is a great name, because we all have come up with a Hare Brained scheme or two. We right away make a connection to his point and can see ourselves rushing around making a mess of things.
Then he talked about how slow and often unfocused contemplation can lead to great insight and well conceived notions. He calls this the Turtle Mind. Again this is a great analogy because we all remember the story of the Tortoise and the Hare and all its implications.
I took a walk along the walking path that follows the creek near my office this morning and saw a big snapping turtle wallowing around in a quiet spot of the water flow. The turtle is a great poster child for thinking things through, for letting inspiration find you while sitting on a rock and for hunkering down to let insignificant activity pass you by.